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Why Los Angeles Misses the Christopher Commission : The public needs a periodic, outside audit of the LAPD reform effort

POLICE AND SOCIETY / A series of editorials on the relationship between cops and communities.

July 31, 1994

Not for the first time, the City Council has moved to accept yet another valuable reform recommendation of the Christopher Commission. The council voted to place civilians on police disciplinary boards. Just a few years ago, such an innovation would not even have been formally proposed at the council, much less approved. The Los Angeles Police Department then was, in effect, a closed society--an institution responsible to virtually no one, with a peculiar system that insulated the police chief in a way that only underscored the lack of accountability to the public.

But what would have been an unbelievable change just a few years ago last week passed through the portals of city government if not as routine business, then as something a bit less daunting than a wholesale rewrite of the Declaration of Independence.

Clearly, credit for that goes, first of all, to the legacy of the Christopher Commission, whose chairman, Warren Christopher, is now of course serving the nation as secretary of state. But, with the commission no longer in existence, the torch has been passed to others. And what is notable is the intensity of feeling that the light of the Christopher reform movement must not be extinguished.

Certainly that is the feeling of Willie Williams, the former Philadelphia police chief who was brought in to run the department and carry forth the reforms. Certainly that's the spirit of key City Council members, such as Marvin Braude; and of the public-spirited members of the city's Police Commission, the titular overlord of the LAPD, and indeed of the dedicated career officers in the department who see many of the Christopher recommendations as reforms that they themselves had long thought desirable. And certainly the commitment to reform remains with the (relatively) new mayor, Richard Riordan.

But for all the conviction, and indeed for all the initial accomplishment, there remains reason for concern. Too many measures have been stalled, whether for reasons of lack of money or will, or surfeit of human inertia and entrenched bureaucratic opposition. This is to be expected, of course: The internal reform of a complex and vitally important public institution like the LAPD is not easy and indeed should not be easy. The changes can directly affect public safety; not everything about the department, to say the least, needs to be reformed. The good must be preserved while the bad is pushed out.

People of good will differ as to what still needs to be done. But no one quarrels with the proposition that a great deal is left to do. The problem is in determining what exactly remains on the agenda. The LAPD makes its report and says it has done X, Y and Z; the Police Commission makes its determination, the City Council's Public Safety Committee makes its report. Each of these efforts is helpful, but none is definitive. And all of them, taken, together, are confusing. Each player in the process has its own particular perspective. The public really doesn't know what to think, or where it stands.

The Christopher Commission, while it was in existence as the disinterested panel above the fray, was able to issue authoritative judgments with which few people could quarrel. Indeed, six months after its initial report in July, 1991, it issued an invaluable interim report. But that was the commission's last official act; after that, it simply went away.

It is time for it to come back. Los Angeles needs a reconstituted Christopher Commission--not the full 10-member panel, of course, but some representative subgroup consisting of those members who are still able to serve. Los Angeles needs that reconstituted panel in order to provide the city with a continuing monitor of the LAPD reform effort. It needs to provide what the Kolts Commission provided for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department--a mechanism of biannual reports to the public on how reform is proceeding. This has been most valuable and has contributed to the sense that sheriff's reforms are further along than the LAPD's.

We need the Christopher Commission again. A small group of its original board ought to reconstitute itself. A thorough and impartial audit of the reform movement--what has been done, and what more needs to be done--should be its first order of business. Then, every six months, it should report to Los Angeles on the progress of the monumentally important reforms it recommended. That will be an invaluable public service.

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